Canada’s federal election campaign has a distinctly Jewish irony this time around: The country’s solidly pro-Israel prime minister reached out to Jewish voters with Rosh Hashanah cards just weeks before an election that falls on a Jewish holiday.
For the second consecutive year, the holiday cards sent by Prime Minister Stephen Harper triggered questions about privacy and religious profiling. At the same time, there’s much consternation among the country’s 370,000 Jews that the vote takes place Oct. 14 — the first day of Sukkot.
The combination of events prompted Montreal resident Lev Berner to sum up the feelings of some Jewish Canadians when he was quoted in The Gazette newspaper as saying that Harper is “conscientious enough to reach out to possible Jewish voters, yet ignorant enough to schedule the election on Sukkot.”
The latest polls show Harper is within striking range of winning a majority government in Canada’s 308-seat House of Commons. His main rival, Stephane Dion, leads the opposition Liberal Party, which has traditionally received the support of the majority of Canadian Jews.
Issues facing Canadian Jews include increasing racist and anti-Semitic activity, especially online; the threat posed by Iran; and support for Israel at the United Nations and in international negotiations.
B’nai Brith Canada, which called the election’s scheduling “regrettable yet understandable,” noted that electoral laws “provide ample alternatives for voters to cast their ballot on days other than the scheduled election date.”
In a statement posted on the Canadian Jewish Congress’ Web site, Canada’s chief electoral officer lays out the options available to Jewish voters unable to vote on Sukkot. An estimated 25 percent of Canadian Jews are Orthodox.
One option, stated Marc Mayrand, is to vote at advance polls scheduled for Oct. 3, 4 and 6. Another is to vote by mail or in person at a local Elections Canada office any time until Oct. 14 if citizens first register for a special ballot.
Elected with a minority Conservative government in January 2006, Harper has left a record of solidly pro-Israel moves and statements, to the delight, for the most part, of the country’s Jews.
Just weeks after their election, the Conservatives ended all contacts with the Hamas government, and suspended assistance to the Palestinian Authority. “Not a red cent to Hamas,” said then-Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay. “This is a terrorist organization.”
Since then, Harper has declared Canada’s “unshakable support” for Israel and has declared that “our government believes that those who threaten Israel also threaten Canada.”
Last January, Canada became the first nation to announce it would boycott next year’s U.N. anti-racism conference, a follow-up to the 2001 Durban conference in South Africa. Ottawa cited the “circus of intolerance” directed at Israel at the 2001 Durban parley.
The policy statements have triggered vigorous discussion in the Jewish community about whether it is time Jewish votes shifted away from their traditional Liberal base to support for the Conservatives.
There’s no hard data on Canadian Jews’ voting trends. But one informal study showed that during the 1970s, the years of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, they voted Liberal at a rate 20 percent higher than the national average.
“There’s lots of talk in both Montreal and Toronto about Jews considering supporting the Conservatives,” said McGill University sociologist Morton Weinfeld, one of Canada’s foremost watchers of Jewish voting trends.
Weinfeld predicted a drop in Jewish votes for the Liberals, but “it may be a modest drop. I think the Jewish liberal tendency will persist but at a reduced margin.”
Echoing the phenomenon of increasing numbers of Jews leaning toward the Republicans in America, he said that some socially minded Jews are torn between Harper’s support for Israel and his domestic conservatism.
Some Jews may fear that handed a majority government, the Conservatives could unleash drastic cost-cutting measures in social programs for children, immigrants, the eldery and other vulnerable populations.
B’nai Brith Canada has issued a 19-page guide to “issues of concern and recommendations for action” in this election. The guide does not endorse any party since non-profit organizations are prohibited from doing so.
The group’s top domestic priority is hate-related activity in Canada. The guide notes that in 2007, there were 1,042 anti-Semitic incidents in the country — the highest figure ever recorded by the group’s annual audit, and an increase of 11.4 percent from 2006.
On the international front, the group has called for reform at the United Nations and for Ottawa to insist that “the emerging Palestinian state” end incitement to hatred, reject terrorism and move to disarm and outlaw terrorist groups.
The Canadian Jewish Congress has also laid out its issues in an election guide. They include the need to get tougher with Iran, shore up laws governing hate speech on the Internet, and developing a “national poverty strategy.”
The Conservatives have also scored points in the Jewish community with a $3-million program to help beef up security at places of worship and ethno-cultural buildings. To date, they have allocated more than $600,000 to 19 synagogues, Jewish schools and communal buildings.
Dion, the Liberal Party candidate, has pledged $75 million to help ethno-cultural centers and houses of worship improve security.